Think 2016 was a ? The nation’s top linguists agree. The American Dialect Society just named “dumpster fire”–and the two emoji that represent it–its Word of the Year. Why? Because, it says, the phrase best represents “the public discourse and preoccupations” of 2016.
The society of linguists, grammarians, and wordy scholars has awarded the prize each year since 1990, back when “bushlips,” defined as “insincere political rhetoric,” won Word of the Year and “politically correct” won Most Outrageous. This year, after an initial deliberation by the society’s New Words Committee, more than 300 members of the Linguistic Society of America voted at a standing-room-only reception during the society’s annual conference. The entire slate had a political bent, but “dumpster fire” ultimately triumphed over “woke,” “normalize,” “post-truth,” “#NoDAPL,” and–in distant sixth place, sans dumpster–“.”
It isn’t the only group to do this. Merriam-Webster chose “surreal,” Dictionary.com went for “xenophobia,” and Oxford Dictionaries selected “post-truth.” But so far, New Words Committee’s is the only choice to be so eminently emoji-able. While it’s clearly a bit of commentary on current events, says Ben Zimmer, chair of the New Words Committee, it’s also “a bit of dark humor for people who were a bit unhappy with the events of 2016.”
Some years, Zimmer can accurately predict the winner. Not this year, though. “Last year, there was a clear front-runner: ‘they,’ being used as a singular third-person pronoun,” he says. But this year, the competition was close: “woke” in particular was popular enough to prompt a runoff vote, though “dumpster fire” took the crown by a count of 162-129.
2016: The Year Paralinguistic Self-Expression Became Crucial
This year wasn’t the first time so many submissions referenced political events. “Four years ago, there was ‘binders (full of women)’ and ‘Eastwooding,'” says Zimmer. “It seems almost quaint in retrospect.” But an unprecedented amount of the 2016 presidential campaign took place on Twitter, a development that fundamentally changed how linguists source neologisms–and how we create them.
“We can eavesdrop on what’s spread in a way that we couldn’t do before,” Zimmer says. After Hillary Clinton mentioned a basket of deplorables or Donald Trump blurted “nasty woman,” you could buy T-shirts and mugs emblazoned with the terms within hours. Trending topics allow linguists to track a phrase from creation to virality. “You can see the way that people receive what the candidates are saying, react to it, and repurpose what they’ve heard,” says Zimmer. “Hashtags are often used as vehicles to circulate a linguistic meme.” The American Dialect Society has given these new forms their due: In 2015, for the first time, it included categories for Most Notable Emoji () and Most Notable Hashtag (#SayHerName).
Of course, “dumpster fire” held meaning before it became . You can trace it to 2009, when sports radio host Mike Wise used the phrase in a column about the Redskins losing to the Lions, calling it an “abomination of a loss.” Or go further back, to 1936, when George Dempster invented the garbage truck and called it the “Dempster-Dumpster.” But the paralinguistic forms, as they’re known, offer an additional form of self-expression–one we especially needed in 2016.
When we talk in person or on the phone, we rely on gestures and intonations to express ourselves, especially when the subject prompts an emotional reactions. As more of our communication happens online, we turn to digital forms to share those responses: emoji, GIFs, pictograms like ?_(?)_/?. “In informal written communication, especially on the internet, we want to convey our tone of voice and attitude towards people,” says linguist Gretchen McCullock. “Emoji are really good at paralinguistic communication, to accompany the literal meaning that we’re conveying.”
This use of emoji to represent visceral response was especially useful in a year when the news–from political gaffes to racial tensions–felt deeply personal. In 2015, Apple released iOS 8.3, including the first range of skin tones; in 2016, Twitter added three black fists to the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag. As emoji become more personalized, they allow users to more specifically represent themselves; other contenders for the Emoji of the Year were and . “It’s not a coincidence that all the most popular are face and hand emojis,” says McCullock. “They show stuff we can do when we see each other.”
Inevitably, some of 2016’s most popular expressions will fade from the zeitgeist, joining the likes of “Y2K” (1999 Word of the Year) and “to be Plutoed” (2006 Word of the Year). But the practice of creating new phrases to describe cultural events will continue–and in an era of digital communication, that includes emoji. Let’s just hope 2017 is more , less .